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The Invisible Children of Incarceration

By Ali Brooks, Anne Raun and Madison Reichert

Courtesy of the Oklahoma Children of Incarcerated Parents Commission

Written Story By Anne Raun

OOklahoma notoriously ranks first in the country in female incarceration per capita, but far less attention has been paid to the more than 26,0000 Oklahoma children with an incarcerated parent. Rhonda Bear should know.


Bear, 51, is a former inmate who now serves as the director of six halfway homes in Claremore and owns She Brews coffee shop, which employs former inmates. She said that Oklahoma’s excessive sentencing of drug crimes not only affects women but also creates long-lasting harmful effects on Oklahoma’s youth. The Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth (OCCY), a state agency, reports that 10 percent of Oklahoma children with an incarcerated parent are in foster care. Nationally, 7 out of 10 children of incarcerated parents will follow in their parents’ footsteps, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.


The agency reports these figures are higher today than they have ever been. 


Bear said that when women are put in prison, “the key is thrown away, and they are forgotten by society.”


“It’s excessive punishment to our children,” she added. “We need more treatment programs and fewer punitive programs.”


Bear, who has three children – now 26, 28 and 30, said her primary goal after her release was to regain custody of her children and help women in similar situations do the same. In a survey conducted by the OCCY, two-thirds of families affected by incarceration said they experienced “difficulty meeting basic financial need” as a result of incarceration. According to the same report, 70 percent of these families had children under 18.


The Path


Oklahoma Watch, a state journalism watchdog, reported earlier this year that the state’s incarceration rate for women – a nation-high 143 per capita in 2014 – was more than twice the national rate and the highest since the Bureau of Justice Statistics began tracking such numbers in 1978.  That rate has increased by more than 16 percent since Oklahoma Watch first highlighted the issue in 2011, with an estimated 3,000 women in state corrections facilities at the end of 2015.


Oklahoma has consistently held the highest rate of female incarceration in the nation since 1998, the data shows, and according to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (ODOC), nearly 80 percent of female offenders are imprisoned for non-violent offenses such as drug abuse, controlled substance crimes, property crimes and prostitution. Drug crimes are the sole reason more than half of women in Oklahoma Correctional Facilities are imprisoned, according to the most recent ODOC annual report on female offenders.


More than 75 percent of inmates were assessed as presenting a “minimal threat to public safety” when they were entered into the system, according to the same study.  For those reasons, some Oklahomans take issue with the severity of prison sentencing in the state when offenders could be given less costly sentences such as probation.


The department also reports that as many as 85 percent of female inmates in Oklahoma are mothers.


Dr. Susan Sharp, a University of Oklahoma sociology professor, has studied the effects of incarceration on the families of inmates and is the author of “Mean Lives, Mean Laws: Oklahoma’s Women Prisoners.” According to Sharp, numerous schools across the state have at least 75 percent of their students affected by parental incarceration.


The Oklahoma Study of Incarcerated Mothers and Their Children, conducted by the OCCY, surveyed 367 female offenders and revealed several striking commonalities. Almost two-thirds of incarcerated women had a family member with a drinking problem, and more than 50 percent had a family member with a drug problem. Almost 50 percent had a family history of mental illness, almost 20 percent had a father who was incarcerated and almost 10 percent had a mother who was also incarcerated.


Additionally, more than two-thirds of inmates reported experiencing physical or sexual abuse as children and almost three-fourths said they experienced domestic violence as adults, according to the same study.


These patterns indicate many female offenders come from backgrounds that predispose them to delinquency. Dr. Heather McLaughlin, an assistant professor of sociology at Oklahoma State, has studied the effects of sexual harassment and adds another issue these women face: poverty.  She said being poor is correlated with both sexual and physical abuse and is one of the main roots of criminal behavior.


“Poverty certainly plays a large role here,” McLaughlin said. “Not to say that sexual abuse and domestic violence doesn’t happen among more advantaged people as well, but I think poverty is a really important antecedent for the criminal justice system.”


She said that poverty coupled with “these negative life experiences early on” and a lack resources like therapy to cope with these issues is a potent combination.


“I think a lot of women … will turn to drug use as a way to cope with some of those early traumas,” McLaughlin said. “I think it’s the confluence of drug dependency as a coping mechanism, poverty and inability to turn to other mechanisms to deal with traumas that creates such a problem.”


Unfortunately, McLaughlin said, one of the biggest effects of female incarceration is the effect felt by the children of women in prison. Data from the Oklahoma Study of Incarcerated Mothers and Their Children shows children of women in prison are more likely to have bad grades, be expelled, run away from home and show depressive symptoms.


More than 45 percent of children of incarcerated mothers will experience mental health problems, according to a study conducted by OCCY.


“There is now a growing awareness that parents who go to prison do not suffer the consequences alone; the children of incarcerated parents often lose contact with their parents and visits are sometimes rare,” a representative of The Sentencing Project wrote in the study. “Children of incarcerated parents are more likely to drop out of school, engage in delinquency, and subsequently be incarcerated themselves.”


Data also shows many women in prison are the heads of single-parent homes, which means their children are often left in an unstable home situation. Among women who were living with their children before incarceration, 55 percent have never had their children visit them in prison and 40 percent have also never had phone contact with their children, according to data from the ODOC.


The Interventionist


Today, three of the six homes Rhonda Bear manages are designated for former inmates who have regained custody of their children, providing them a semi-structured, safe, faith-based environment rent-free. Women may stay in the homes until their youngest child turns 18.


“These mothers are so happy to get their children back,” Bear said, “that they are really just trying to do the best that they can do to be the best mom that they can be.”


Bear, who runs the coffee shop She Brews in which she hires formerly incarcerated women, said she is thankful for the success she has achieved after her release from prison. She said her halfway homes help reunite about 60 to 70 children with their mothers each year.


“We’re making a little drop in the bucket,” she added


Allie Frazier, one of Bear’s employees at She Brews, said that the help she has received from Bear transformed her life. The mother of four children, ages 14, 12, 6 and 5, Frazier said she came to She Brews a mess, but has grown because of Bear’s unfailing faith in her ability to grow. Today, she said, her biggest goal is to be a good mother.


“You do everything you can,” Frazier said. “You always want better for your kids.”


Bear said she is thankful She Brews and the halfway homes in Claremore are not the only programs in the state aimed at helping former inmates and their children establish normalcy and stability. Through Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Children of Incarcerated Parents Mentoring Program expects to serve 500 children in 2016, according to an OCCY report. Additionally, Little Light Christian School in Edmond provides tuition-free education to the children of inmates. In Lawton, OCCY partners with Marie Detty Youth and Family Services to offer an after-school childcare program to children of incarcerated parents who attend Lawton Public Schools. Their shared goal is trying to combat the negative effects of incarceration that pervade Oklahoma.


“I believe in order to save the children, I’ve been called to be one of the interventionists,” Bear said.


“I help 21 women at a time who focus on getting their children back,” she said. “We help them with employment. We help them with education. We help them set goals so that their lives and their children’s lives can be different.” 

"I was coming back different."

Motivation: Her Children

Her Story

Videos By Madison Reichert
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